Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy, 1945-1964

By John Baylis | Go to book overview
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The Development of a Deterrence
Frame of Mind 1945-1947

As never before, the responsible statesmen of the great powers are faced with decisions vital not merely to the increase in human happiness but to the very survival of civilization.

( Clement Attlee, Sept. 1945)

IN the first two years after the Second World War ended an 'atomic climate' was created in Britain as the new Labour government under Clement Attlee laid the foundations of a nuclear weapons programme which was to remain a central feature of British defence policy down to the 1990s.1 A number of momentous decisions were taken to establish research, development, and production facilities as well as to develop atomic weapons and a long-range bomber force. It was these decisions which led to the first British atomic test in 1952 and to the deployment of a nuclear deterrent capability by 1955. These developments, however, obscured a major debate in British military and political circles, over whether the release of atomic energy constituted a new force too revolutionary to consider in the framework of old ideas or whether the new weapons were merely a more efficient means of destruction which nation states could use to defend or promote their interests in much the same way that they had done for hundreds of years. This was reflected in the new government's question to the Chiefs of Staff shortly after the defeat of Japan. They were asked whether 'The introduction of atomic explosives open[s] up an era of destruction on a scale never before considered feasible, or is it merely an intensive development of the existing

See AIR 41/87, Humphrey Wynn, ' The RAF Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Forces: Their Origins, Roles and Deployment 1946-1969: A Documentary History'. This study was published by HMSO in 1994.


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